South Asia

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Secretariat Is Now a Buzzing Library Overseen by Protestors

With books like 'Great Expectations', 'Behind Palace Doors' and 'Under Siege' on display, the community library in the Sri Lankan president's office seems to be trolling the country's leadership.

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Colombo: At the community library in Colombo’s Presidential Secretariat, the titles seem to be trolling the leadership. Great Expectations, Behind Palace Doors, Under Siege, Backlash: these are among the books housed in the front room of the historic building occupied by protestors since July 9.

Hundreds of visitors arrive here daily to rifle through books and magazines, chat, take selfies and absorb a large slice of history that would have otherwise remained off limits to the public.

“This is a government building, but no advantage has reached the people from here, it has only benefited the privileged,” said Prathibha Fernando, 41, a media manager helping with the library. She is a member of the Aragalaya protest movement that has been demanding political change for months. “We wanted to keep it as a symbol of our struggle.”

This is the only official building that continues to remain in the hands of protestors. Thousands swarmed key government buildings, including the president’s home last week, and then handed them back to authorities after unpopular president Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned. Sri Lanka has been embroiled in protests for several months, prompted by a deep economic crisis and political mismanagement.

“We handed over everything but not this one,” said Methsera Benaragama, 21, a writer, university student, and one of the volunteers. The common conclusion was “we won’t hand it over until Ranil Wickremesinghe resigns and some of our expectations are met”.

Wickremesinghe is the unpopular acting president who took over last week after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled. He is seen to be too close to the Rajapaksas, the political family now wildly out of favour in Sri Lanka.

Black banners stream down the length of the nearly 100-year-old building that previously housed the Parliament. Inside, hand-written signs posted on pink sheets of paper clearly tell visitors to the secretariat: “This is not the property of Gota, don’t damage” and “This is our tax money, don’t brake (sic)”.

The covers of several books are clearly hashtagged #GoHomeGota, the rousing slogan behind the movement, and marked inside with the stamp #GoHomeGota2022 Library”.

Banners put up at the presidential secretariat in Colombo. Written on a book is “#GoHomeGota”, the slogan of the protests. Photos: Bhavya Dore

“This is a symbol of the struggle,” said Benaragama. He continued, “We decided to plant a library to prevent people from destroying the place.”

Books have poured in from across Sri Lanka, in English, Tamil and Sinhala; from P.G. Wodehouse to Elizabeth Gilbert to Ian Fleming. The Quran sits with children’s books, technical manuals, biographies and romance novels. “What is a library?” asked Fernando. “It is a source of knowledge. We want people to think, to read. When people read a lot, they think a lot, and when they think then politicians can’t fool them.”

Functioning as the president’s office since 1983, the neo-baroque revivalist structure has been described as “a masterpiece in stone”.

On Tuesday, security forces lurked below, keeping a watchful eye on the carnival around. Visitors swarmed the lawns, dotted with statues of former prime ministers, and stopped to take selfies on the steps. Some had travelled from across the country to visit what has turned into a showpiece of the struggle.

A file photo of Sri Lanka’s Presidential Secretariat. Photo: Grayswoodsurrey/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

“This is an experience, a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said Rifas Abubakar, 35, who travelled via train for six hours from Batticaloa just for the day. “I came here to see all of this, to see this historic building. It was great.”

A. Aishwarya also travelled from Batticaloa, along with two friends from Negombo, for a taste of history and a show of solidarity. She had not been able to make it to the protests earlier because of the fuel crisis. “It is good the way they have kept it, and that people can visit, and read here,” she said.

Fernando said daily visitor numbers were in the thousands last week, and between 500 to 1,000 this week. “Sometimes there is so much rush, we can’t even breathe,” she said.

This branch of the library is an offshoot of the original that was set up on Galle Face Green, the main protest site on April 11. Among the first official tents set up, that too continues to stay open. The protestors have been working with libraries across the country and also did a special project with Jaffna Public Library, which was burnt down by a Sinhalese mob in 1981.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.